The recent dissolution of Daft Punk was heartbreaking for music lovers all over the globe and especially fans of dance, electronic and club music, but the person I worried most for was American DJ Steven Zhu, more commonly referred to as just Zhu. The New York Observer praised the DJ as “the next Daft Punk” after Zhu’s 2016 Coachella performance. Since then, the title has floated around the EDM community in a way that might have inflated expectations and pressured Zhu to evolve musically and fill the Daft Punk-sized hole in EDM.
Primarily a live entertainer, Zhu’s previous albums have all been polished and creative, but I felt they lacked energy and served as a palette of recognizable melodies for use in his live shows. When I heard Zhu had released his new album “DREAMLAND 2021,” I felt like my expectations had been heightened by his exciting live shows and the hype surrounding him, but “DREAMLAND 2021” shattered my expectations and blew my mind.
On “DREAMLAND 2021,” Zhu finally captured the creative energy of his live shows and funneled his producing talent onto an LP while retaining his spontaneity. Combining elements of house, drum & bass as well as techno, Zhu displays creative flexibility and cloaks all these different styles with a dark, industrial quality. My favorite thing about this project is its variety and unpredictability. In every song, I was never sure what direction the rhythm or melodies would take. The diversity between abrasive textures and clean, sharp beats changing on a whim is attention seizing and the effect is entrancing.
The violent tone of the synthesizers and the unabating repetition of sequences are what contribute to the industrial quality as well as the deliberate balance of echo and reverberation. Even the real instruments like the guitars and vocals have a machine-like tone to them. At full volume, it borders on dance music and factory equipment. The saxophone especially has a cement-like echo that sounds recorded in a parking garage or an empty warehouse. The saxophone is literally screaming to be heard amid the claustrophobic exertion produced by the synths.
The driving tempos and harsh synths are relentless; track after track, the pace of the album never slows down or loses its creative momentum. On tracks like “Yours” and “Distant Lights,” Zhu sometimes turns down most or all of the instrumentals in exchange for sequences and motifs characteristic of his live style, but then he spontaneously introduces subwoofer shattering bass lines and melodies that shock the listener out of their beat-induced trance. This back and forth between restraint and ferocity makes songs like “Lost It” or the monstrous closer “I Need That” twice as impactful and explosive.
“DREAMLAND 2021” reminds me of Daft Punk, not sonically but creatively and innovatively. Despite the repetitive styles and rhythms, I’ve never heard anything quite like this in the realm of EDM. Zhu’s ambition and limitless creative reservoir are obvious and apparent on “DREAMLAND 2021” and put him in a league of his own in relation to his contemporaries.
By: Tony Le Calvez